3 Ways to Foster a Connected Family

If you have been a foster parent for any length of time, you have surely learned that foster parenting is both the best and the hardest thing you’ve ever done. The layers of dynamics and stress that go along with inviting strangers into your home and trying to provide a nurturing environment where they can heal and grow, while continuing to carry around in their bodies and brains the effects of trauma and neglect, is no small feat. To foster parent well requires a significant amount of intention, effort, and work.

Flourishing as a foster family does not happen naturally.

Recently, I invited trauma and adoption therapist Lesley Joy Ritchie to be our guest for a Flourishing Foster Parent coaching call, and she said something that was so important: despite how hard it is, and despite how stressed out we can be much of the time, it is vital that we find a way to connect and enjoy one another every day.

This is much easier said than done.

When you deal with challenging behaviors on a daily basis—lying, tantrums, oppositional or defiant behavior, violence, etc.—it can be very tempting to, in Lesley’s words, “consequence all of the joy out of life.” But that is the most counter-productive thing we can do if we want to help our kids heal and grow emotionally healthy. In fact, one of the hardest parts of trauma-informed parenting is recognizing that, often times, when our instincts tell us to issue a consequence for unacceptable behavior, what our child really needs is an opportunity to connect.

I confess that I have not done well with this over the years. I am someone who is naturally inclined to cancel fun activities as punishment, rather than do the work of letting natural consequences do the teaching. As trauma therapist and fellow foster-adoptive mother Dena Johnson said on another FFP coaching call, “We all want our pound of flesh!” Sometimes it feels good to punish a child who has given us a hard time—but it doesn’t help solve the root cause of their hard behavior.

One of the ways I have attempted to address my own weakness in this area is to create a weekly rhythm of family life that has built-in, non-negotiable opportunities for connection. This way, even if I’m frustrated with one of my kids or a child has really blown it, we still have opportunities to connect, whether we feel like it or not. Here they are!

Family Meals. We eat dinner together every night as a family. It’s one of our stated expectations when new children join our home—we make it clear that everyone is expected to come to the dinner table when the dinner bell rings (yes, I use a dinner bell). If you have an older child who spends most of her time alone in her room, this is one way to guarantee connection with her every day, which is vital if you find it hard to wade through teenage hostility (or even just the laundry on the floor) to connect. We always try to have at least one item on the table that everyone likes (rice, baked potatoes, or bread are staple dinner items, as well as Caesar salad, which everyone in our family likes) and we encourage, but don’t insist, that everyone try everything being offered. Sometimes, we use conversational prompts (such as these from The Family Dinner Project) or just let the chatter run wild. It’s loud, it’s messy—and it’s important to helping the family gather and see one another every day.

Family Movie Night. Every Friday night, we have a Family Movie Night, when we order pizza and watch a movie together. It can be challenging to find movies that appeal to everyone, as our kids range in age from 5-17, but we have managed to do a pretty good job for the most part. There are great Disney Pixar films of course, which are enjoyable for all ages, and we’ve loved introducing some old favorites from our childhood as well (we recently watched Escape to Witch Mountain, which I had forgotten was about two siblings in foster care). The kids and adults always look forward to it, and it’s the one time each week when we are all guaranteed to be gathered together in one room sharing the same activity. Also, we never take away Family Movie Night as a consequence. It’s a vital part of building family connections.

Family Meeting. Once a week, usually on Sundays, we hold a Family Meeting. I have written about our Family Meeting here and shared on YouTube here. (Full disclosure: this has been less structured since the time of quarantine began, as we are together all the time and connecting more throughout the week. That said, my husband and I just committed to restarting the more structured meetings again). Having a time to connect with the whole family, share compliments and appreciations, play board games together, hand out allowance, and review calendar items so everyone is aware of what’s coming up in the week is invaluable fostering family connection and a healthy overall rhythm of family life. We see a huge difference when we skip family meetings.

These are just three things we do consistently to ensure that opportunities to connect happen every week. For kids who come from highly dysfunctional, abusive, or neglectful family systems, the consistency of these positive connections works wonders. It also provides good opportunities to model clear communication, organization, preparation, and planning. And since more is caught than taught, we see our kids imitating the skills they absorb in family meetings, from financial management (we give allowance, but insist that 10% go into a savings account and 10% go into a giving jar) to time management (our kids all understand how to read a calendar and are empowered to consult the family schedule when they wonder what’s happening the the week ahead).

What are some ways you foster connection in your family? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo by Stefan Vladimirov on Unsplash

3 Ways To Empower & Connect With Your Kids at Dinnertime

If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.

One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.

Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.

Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).

Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.

DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).

For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!

For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.

Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,

researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.

IT’S SCIENCE: EAT DINNER TOGETHER, Anne Fishel, Ph.D, The Family Dinner Project

Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are more likely to eat healthy food
  • Perform better academically
  • Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
  • Have better relationships with their parents

This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.

There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.

I promise, you’ll be so glad you did!

Image via Canva.com